This particular photograph is a rectangular print, 3 1/2 inches by 5 1/4 inches. At that ratio, it is most likely from a 35mm camera. It is perforated on the left side of the frame. The paper is sturdy but bowed, most likely from heat and age. It is glossy on the recto, matte on the verso. On the verso are the old three-line “Kodak VELOX Paper.” The edges are deckled. In the top border, slightly cropped is the date “Nov 56”.
The actual picture itself is 8 cm x 12 cm, a glossy monochrome gelatin silver print. The size tells me that it comes from a 35mm camera, which seems standard enough. But in 1956 there were still an awful lot of medium-format cameras being used for amateur photography.
The composition is a fairly regular division of the frame into the “rule of thirds” with light at the top and dark at the bottom. The top third of the picture is monotone; it almost blown out, yet it is still darker than the center objects in the frame. Just above the slightly tilted horizon line, near the center, there is a short vertical line, slightly obscured. It appears to be an industrial smokestack of some sort. Little else in that “background” is visible or identifiable.
The point of highest contrast is almost exactly dead center. At the left edge of the frame is a half ellipse that serves as a triangle to lead the viewer into the picture. In the lower left corner is a bright, mostly featureless rectangular shape with a slight blur at its right end. In the extreme lower right corner is a mild vignette effect. Everything in the picture is soft focus. Most of this picture is filled with horizontals, but the foreground to the right of the rectangular shape contains several square shapes, warped to trapezoids, creating a pattern of vanishing diagonal lines that lead into the distance — or they would, if they were not interrrupted by the main subject matter of the photograph.
The main subject matter is also the brightest object in the frame. It is an airplane: American Airlines. The old American Airlines logo is visible at the aft of the plane beyond the last window. The tail of the plane also reads “American” with the plane’s numerals written above it.
Even if I did not know this photograph was taken most likely around November of 1956, there are plenty of other clues for dating the photograph. The AA logo is a solid color with the eagle facing right. This logo is the company’s second logo, completely monochrome (blue in real life), and was used from 1945 to 1962. Judging from the number of windows, number of propellers and the shape of the tail, the airplane itself seems to be a Convair 240, manufactured between 1947 and 1954. Furthermore, the perspective of the camera seems to be located inside another airplane. The blur at the bottom of the frame is likely a propeller blade in motion. That would mean that the photograph was taken from inside a four-engine turboprop airplane. While it’s impossible for me to tell which four-engine plane, it would likely be a DC-6 or DC-7 which would also put the date after 1949. The three-line “Kodak VELOX Paper” stamp on the verso also dates this print in the 1950s.
A basic interpretation is that the photograph shows an airplane at an airport on the tarmac. This airport is difficult to identify, It is near a body of water, and somewhat distant from an industrial area. But then most of them are. That it’s taken from a four-engine plane suggests that it is a person on an intercontinental flight. That would also narrow the number of airports at which this photo was likely taken.
In 1956 a transcontinental flight would have been a rather momentous occasion. Today a jet flight from New York to Los Angeles — the flagship trip for American Airlines — takes around six hours. In 1939 that same flight in a DC-3 turboprop plane took 20 hours with several stops along the way. With the adoption of the DC-6, the flight was still around 12 hours, but that was a massive technological leap compared to twenty — and it required only one stop in Chicago. If this photo were taken from a brand new DC-7 (first built in 1953), it would have been on the plane that was first to fly from Idlewild (Now JFK Airport) to LAX non-stop, in 8 hours.
No wonder the anonymous photographer here thought it was a special moment to raise their camera and take a picture as they dollied toward the runway.